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  • Writer's picturePaul D. Wilke

Limitations of Kantian Ethics

“Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you

do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!”

Winston in George Orwell's 1984

In 1961 Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was tried in Jerusalem for his role in the deportation and extermination of hundreds of thousands of European Jews. Eichmann, reviled for his actions during the Holocaust, surprised the court by declaring he had attempted to live his whole life according to Kant’s moral principles, particularly with regards to duty. How could this be? How could Kant’s ethical philosophy be used by someone who helped murder so many innocent people? Was there something deeply flawed about Kantian ethics that, in certain circumstances, could be warped to justify such horrible crimes against humanity? Or, can such behavior be twisted in the name of Kant’s ideas only by grossly distorting his philosophy? As we will see, there is in fact difficulty reconciling some aspects of Kant’s ethics, especially when applied to real-world scenarios.

I'm going to examine what Kant said about how people should treat each other. I will then apply his moral philosophy to some extreme real-world scenarios. The nightmare of twentieth-century totalitarianism will be a backdrop in this discussion to help illustrate the stark contrast between Kant’s abstract moral ideal and the brutal harshness of reality. The result is a moral philosophy praiseworthy in theory but cold and rigid when applied to real-world people in real-world scenarios.


Summary of Kant's Moral Philosophy

Duty has long been used as both a motivation and justification for individual behavior. For Kant, duty and autonomy are central concepts binding his moral system. In the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant gives us a definition of duty: “Duty is that action to which a person is bound. It is therefore the matter of the obligation.” [1] Within this definition Kant makes two distinctions: First, there are juridical or external duties, which are those duties that we are compelled by external law or authority to obey.

For example, if I only honor a contract for legal reasons, then I am exercising a juridical duty since external obligations force me to obey. If, on the other hand, I honor the contract simply because it is deemed the right thing to do, with no possibility of being compelled by either the other party or the law, then I am obeying ethical legislation.

While external duties can overlap with ethical legislation in practice as seen from the example above, true duty according to Kant is that which is done without being necessitated by external obligation. Or, in Kant’s words: “Ethical legislation is that which cannot be external (though the duties may be external).” [2] For any action to have moral worth requires that it be done from duty. And, more specifically, the moral worth of an action does not depend on the result, but on the motivation in which that action was done.

Goodwill, not good result, intent and not consequences, defines what can be truly described as good. Motivations driven by desired outcomes (honor, self-esteem, acceptance, glory, etc) may result in beneficial results, as Kant readily admits, but do not count as truly moral since they were not accomplished purely from duty.

This overarching emphasis of duty toward an ideal – here the Truth – leaves Kant open to criticism. Karen Stohr argues that Kant’s ethical system is incomplete because it does not place enough focus on emotions. [3] Stohr examined Kant’s definition of duty in the context of the so-called ‘cold-hearted benefactor’ used by him as an example of doing one’s duty despite any strong inclination to do so. In the first section of the Groundwork, Kant tells of a man who is by natural disposition not one bit sympathetically inclined to help others in need.

Though disposed of such a cold-hearted character, “…he nevertheless tears himself from this deadly insensibility and performs the action without any inclination at all, but solely from duty – then for the first time his action has genuine moral worth.” [4] Stohr uses this example to illustrate her point: “The problem with the cold-hearted benefactor, then, is not that he has duty as a motive; it is that he has duty as his only motive.” [5]

Michael Stocker uses a similar scenario to show what is lacking in Kant’s focus on duty. Suppose your friend comes to visit you in the hospital, not out of friendship or any real concern for you, but purely out of duty. Truth be told, your friend is utterly indifferent to your plight; only duty brings him to your bedside. [6]

In a case like this, one feels an instinctual sense that something moral is lacking in your friend’s behavior; a sense that he is just going through the motions of doing the right thing, though by Kant’s definition your friend’s performance of his duty (visiting you) despite otherwise being indifferent is more moral simply because the friend overcame his indifferent predisposition to do what was understood as the “right” thing.


Summary of the Categorical Imperative

In order to understand why Kant could reach this conclusion, it is first necessary to offer a brief explanation of Kant’s imperatives and the role they play in determining what our duties should be. In the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant makes a distinction between two types of imperative: hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives.

While all imperatives are an expression of what ought to be done, hypothetical imperatives have an end in mind; if you want to accomplish that end, then you must do x. For example, if a woman wants to be healthy, she has to exercise and eat well. Here, there is a subjectively desired goal, health, which the hypothetical imperative articulates as the objective. Inherent in this type of imperative is often a desire to improve happiness or well-being.

Happiness for Kant was too indefinite to represent the universality demanded by the second type of imperative, the categorical imperative. Since happiness is defined by subjective objectives determined by different criteria based on various individual predispositions, it can never be any more than a hypothetical imperative.

Kant points this out by telling us: “And thus the imperative that refers to the choice of means to one’s own happiness, i.e., the precept of prudence, still remains hypothetical; the action is commanded not absolutely but only as a means to a further purpose.” [7] Or, hypothetical imperatives presuppose the method required to achieve an end (eat less to lose weight).

Categorical imperatives, on the other hand, are an expression of universal law. There are essentially three primary components of the categorical imperative.

1. First: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.” [8].

2. Second: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” [9]

3. Third, the so-called formula of the Kingdom of Ends: “Act in accordance with the maxims of a member legislating universal laws for a merely possible kingdom of ends, which remains in full force, since it commands categorically.” [10]

In the context of the categorical imperative, duty becomes an obligation to obey universal laws of morality, laws that preclude using people as a means of reaching one’s objectives. It means ensuring that duty to one’s self and duty to others are in sync. This variation of the Golden Rule (Kant rejected such a comparison, but it is apt nonetheless) is meant to govern man’s ethical behavior in everything.


Problems with Kant's Moral Philosophy

Critics like T.K. Seung argue that it is impossible to define those duties dictated by the categorical imperative because of the indeterminacy of its formulation and interpretations. [11] As we will see in a number of contexts, the question of how to translate formal principles to empirical reality was a question Kant could never adequately answer.

However, while such moral theory can appeal in the abstract, the devil is in the details. While thinking of hypothetical imperatives is simple, conjuring categorical imperatives that meet Kant’s criteria applicable to universal law is more challenging. Warner Wick explains the challenge of defining the categorical imperative: “The validity of the categorical imperative implies that reasons for action may be independent of empirical influences.” [12] As such, searching for examples presents difficulties.

For example, Kant tells us in The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue: “The greatest violation of man’s duty to himself considered only as a moral being (the humanity in his person) is the opposite of veracity: lying.” [13] Lying, therefore, was a violation of duty by violating universal moral law, and it was not only a violation of duty but the greatest violation possible.

Of course, said as an abstraction absent any concrete situation, it is easy to say that lying is always morally wrong since by applying the categorical imperative, the telling of a lie can never be made into universal moral law. A difficulty arises when conducting even the simplest thought experiment based on a scenario where it could be argued that lying is the best choice to achieve the greatest good.

In 1797, Benjamin Constant, a French philosopher and contemporary of Kant would offer a pointed criticism of Kant’s unconditional duty to tell the truth. Kant’s response would expose a chilling undercurrent lurking in his moral system. In his short essay in response to Constant, On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns, Kant argued that it would be a crime to lie to a person seeking to murder a friend who had taken refuge in your house for the purpose of hiding from the killer. [14]

Constant argued that in such a situation, the killer forfeits his right to the truth since his intent is malicious. Since there is no right to the truth when it will result in the harm of others, it is permissible to lie in a case like this. For most people placed in a similar situation, the obvious “moral” choice would be to lie in order to save your friend, since that outcome is preferable to doing one’s Kantian duty and telling the truth.

However, in response to Constant’s challenge, Kant doubled down and defended his unbending assertion that it is always a crime to lie, even in a situation where physical harm may result from that decision. He tells us this in no uncertain terms:

“Truthfulness in statements that cannot be avoided is the formal duty of man to everyone, however great the disadvantage that may arise therefrom for him or any other. And even though by telling an untruth I do no wrong to him who unjustly compels me to make a statement, yet by this falsification, which as such can be called a lie (though not in a juridical sense), I do wrong to duty in general in a most essential point" [15]

Put another way, duty is injured by lying, and this, in turn, injures the liar. Kant weakly attempts to defend this inflexible and cold assertion by disingenuously shifting the conditions of the original thought experiment to insert uncertainty into the scenario. After all, he tells us, how can we really know that lying will save the friend, or that the friend may have already escaped and did not need you to lie to save him?

Or, perhaps while telling the truth, friends from next door would rush to help while the killer was looking through your house for your friend, all while you stand by impotently giving up your friend. [16] After all, if telling the truth is compelled by Kantian duty, then the killer need only ask you which closet your friend is hiding in; your duty would demand you answer truthfully.

And so your friend’s murder is facilitated by our dutiful honesty, even before those friends from next door could rush in to help. What kind of person would not feel the intuitive pangs of conscience after such an outcome? Kant is trapped in his own rigid logic. Lying is a violation of the categorical imperative requiring us to always treat humanity as an end and not a means.

Christine Korsgaard summarizes Kant’s position here: “Physical coercion treats someone's person as a tool; lying treats someone's reason as a tool.” [17] If you lie to the murderer, then you are in effect offending their reason. The question remains, of course, whether offending the killer’s reason is really worse than allowing him to murder your friend, and so also violate the categorical imperative.


Kant's Moral Philosophy in Real-World Situations

But if this is not convincing, consider a few historical examples to illustrate the moral gray zone that many are forced to occupy when confronted by extreme situations. In the 1930s, as Stalin consolidated his power, millions of Soviet citizens were arrested on trumped-up charges and forced to sign false confessions before being either executed or shipped off to the gulags.

The arrest and torture of Lev Kamenev, one of the “Old Bolsheviks” from Lenin’s days, illustrates the overwhelming pressure to lie under relentless interrogation. These interrogation sessions were usually accompanied by torture, with the accused told to confess to a list of crimes against the state and Communist Party. Truth here in any objective sense was not the goal. In situations like this, truth became Orwellian, defined not by reality but by ideological expediency.

Kamenev was ordered to confess to treason and other high crimes against the state. In reality, these charges were fabricated to condemn him, which is exactly what Stalin wanted in order to rid himself of his rival. Kamenev was told that failing to confess to everything he stood falsely accused of would bring about the arrest and execution of his son. [18]

Kamenev’s duty to tell the truth, as Kantian duty dictated, was here countered by the terrible knowledge that doing so would get his son murdered. What would any father do given a similar ethical dilemma? How would we judge the man who stubbornly maintained his innocence given such a terrible choice, refusing to accept the lies demanded of him? Those millions who disappeared in Stalin’s purges often faced similar choices: lie now, or suffer torture until forced to lie later anyway.

Or consider a second, even more morally ambiguous historical example. After World War II, Sections 10 and 11 of Israeli law dealing with the punishment of Nazis and Nazi collaborators contained provisions covering extenuating circumstances. Hannah Arendt notes that this clarification was made to distinguish the actions of the Jewish ‘Special Units’ from those who, like Adolf Eichmann, freely chose to commit their crimes under no real threat of harm.

It has been well documented that these units of Jewish prisoners were tasked by the Nazis with rounding up their fellow Jews in the ghettos for deportation as well as other responsibilities such as enforcing discipline in the ghettos and herding newly arrived Jews into the gas chambers. In other words, they were forced to become cogs in the Nazi extermination machine. The purpose of this law was to provide a Jew who had collaborated with the Nazis in such a capacity a reasonable chance of acquittal if it could be determined he acted “in order to save himself from the danger of immediate death." [19]

Nevertheless, in spite of the legal exculpation these Jews received, there were often questions about whether their actions were really ethical. Was it right to help the Nazis commit genocide if it offered any hope for self-preservation? Would not the categorical imperative tell us that by helping the Nazis, those Jews were allowing themselves to be used as the means to an end (genocide), and that by choosing such a course of action to collaborate in murder to avoid their own certain extermination, they were somehow partly to blame?

Or, to put it bluntly, were those Jews who unwillingly collaborated in the murder of their people in any way morally culpable for those actions? Can anyone really justify participation in genocide, whether coerced or not, solely based on the desire to preserve one’s life?

In the context of this combination of Jewish passivity and apparent collaboration in the face of evil, Arendt tells how the incredulous prosecutor in the Eichmann trial asked witness after witness, “Why did you not protest?” and “Why did you board the train?” and “Fifteen thousand people were standing there and hundreds of guards facing you – why didn’t you revolt and charge and attack?" [20]

The implied judgment in those damning questions hints at a reflexively offended sense of morality, perhaps not in a strictly Kantian sense, but in a sense that inaction and collaboration were in some ways morally culpable. It is not our purpose to answer those difficult questions here, but only to bring them up to highlight once again just how impossible it is to apply Kant’s moral principles of rigidly determined black and white, right and wrong, in situations where all of the options appear to violate moral law to one degree or another.

Situations like these almost defy ethical categorization, particularly for those of us who have lived our lives under the protective umbrella of liberal democracy. In such conditions as those endured by the victims of totalitarianism, we find that Kant’s ethical system breaks down under the harsh reality of legalized, coercive violence.

Predrag Cicovacki points out the seeming difficulty in reconciling Kant with the contingencies of the real world: “An even more serious kind of anomaly, seriously threatening to the formalized foundations of Kant’s moral system, occurs when strict adherence to our rights and duties leaves us powerless in the face of evil, and seems even to contribute to it.” [21] This criticism is justified, especially given the host of ethical dilemmas that people face every day that defy strict Kantian categorization.

Nevertheless, a selective reading of Kant can offer the reader a more sympathetic view, hinting at warmth and compassion lacking elsewhere in his writing. For example, in the Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, he explains the duty to love one’s neighbor: “The duty to love one’s neighbor can also be expressed as the duty to make the ends of others my own (as long as they are not immoral to my own).

The duty to respect one’s neighbor is contained in the maxim, degrade no other man merely as a means to personal ends (do not require another person to throw himself away in order to pander to one’s own ends).”[22] This rings consistent with the second formulation of the categorical imperative to treat others as ends and not means. Also in the Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, we find Kant explaining a duty to be beneficent (453), a duty to respect others (450), and a duty of gratitude. [23]

All of these seem to argue against the charge that Kantian ethics is not applicable to the real world. Kant’s intent was not simply the creation of a cold and emotionless moral system, it was first and foremost an attempt to establish an a priori foundation for morality, independent of our experience and an eternal, consistent gauge to govern our actions.

Even so, the Groundwork reminds us of the fundamental importance of duty in these discussions of virtue: “For love as an inclination cannot be commanded; but beneficence from duty, when no inclination impels us and even when a natural and unconquerable aversion opposes such beneficence, is practical, and not pathological, love.” [24]

Doing the “right” thing should apply equally to everyone, whether they are inclined to that behavior or not. But, as we have seen, sometimes there are situations where even identifying what the right thing to do is impossible. As such, by arguing for morality grounded independent of empirical experience, his logic led him to conclusions that do not provide the flexibility to confront real moral dilemmas.

This gives his ethics a “sunny day” aspect that does not include the full range of possible human experience. Such a morality can only work effectively in a society composed entirely of like-minded individuals, which experience shows us does not exist. It could even be argued that his moral system could be somewhat effective in a free society where most people followed the same benign maxims.

However, if anything, the horrors of the twentieth century show us what can happen when an authoritarian regime decides it wants to dictate its own version of morality. If political authority operates on principles inimical to freedom, ​

love, and mutual respect, as the totalitarian regimes most certainly did, then the scope for an individual to effectively practice Kantian morality is fatally compromised.

It is here, in these dark corners of human experience that the inflexibility of Kant’s system fails to offer us viable options. After all, as has been discussed, how does one obey the duty to not lie when faced with violence? How does Kant’s concept of duty hold up in the torture chamber?

Todd Calder finds the inability to distinguish between ‘degrees of wrongness’ as a problem with Kant. The categorical imperative’s rigid nature provides an intellectual mechanism for determining right and wrong, without the flexibility to determine blame based on circumstance. Calder rightly points out that, “Nothing about Kant’s view of degrees of blameworthiness hangs on the nature of wrongdoing which is entirely appropriate since doing wrong and being blameworthy for wrongdoing are two very different things." [25]

Such a valid point gets to the heart of the matter, especially when we learn about the terrible ethical dilemmas faced by the Lev Kamenevs of the world. The rigidity we find in Kant goes against our natural common sense in such situations. Our intuitions tell us we should be able to discriminate between different types of wrongs, with some being more serious violations of morality than others.

As such, a sadistic torturer or a murderer using others as a means to satisfy their own violent ends should be deemed morally worse than someone who makes a contract they have no intention of honoring. The problem is that Kant’s system does not clearly articulate that this degree of difference in fact exists.

However, in one respect, Kant was absolutely correct. In his Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, we are told, “Every man has a conscience and finds himself observed by an internal judge, who threatens him and keeps him in awe (respect combined with fear).

This authority watching over the laws within him is not something which he himself (arbitrarily) creates, but is incorporated in his being.” [26] In the context of this discussion on conscience, Lucas Thorpe tells us, “Being good is not to follow a rule or a procedure but merely to listen to our conscience on a case by case basis.” [27]

Or, our conscience tells us the right thing to do if only we choose through our own free will to obey it. Curiously, these pangs of conscience can be seen, if only through a glass darkly, in even the most despicable of human beings.

Take, for instance, Himmler’s words to the commanders of his S.S. death squads: “To have stuck it out and, apart from exceptions caused by human weakness, to have remained decent, that is what has made us hard…. These are battles which future generations will not have to fight again….The order to solve the Jewish question, this was the most frightening order an organization could ever receive.” [28]

One can almost hear the faint pangs of conscience in these pep talks to have “stuck it out” to execute the “frightening order” to exterminate the Jews. From Himmler comes a motivational message to the killers to first and foremost do their duty at all costs. After all, many Nazi ideologues reasoned, the distasteful task at hand of mass killing was merely a necessary evil (means) to achieve a better future (ends) where such actions would no longer be unnecessary. In their own warped way, they truly believed the work they were doing was for the greater good of humanity.

As such, Himmler is talking about how difficult it can be to fulfill the obligations of duty when faced with human suffering. This is not duty in any way that Kant would approve of, since the intent of this duty clearly violates the categorical imperative’s rule to treat humanity as an end rather than a means. As Kant concludes in his discussion on conscience: “In his utmost depravity he can at most bring himself to the point where he no longer heeds it [conscience], but he cannot avoid hearing its voice.” [29] Indeed.

Of course, this is not what Kant had in mind when discussing how people should interact with each other in society. While the violence of the French Revolution in his own time hinted at what was to come, Kant did not anticipate the bureaucratic efficiency of the terror apparatus used by the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.


Kant's Kingdom of Ends

Kant envisioned a society where individuals could conduct themselves according to the categorical imperative, with all actions governed by universal moral law. He understood well that people are social creatures and must interact with each other.

In this context, Kant posits his ideal society, his “kingdom of ends,” governed by the interaction of rational beings all obeying pure moral law. “By “kingdom” I understand a systemic union of different rational beings through common laws.”[30] In this perfect society, “…duty does not rest at all on feelings, impulses, and inclinations, but only on the relation of rational beings to one another, a relation in which the will of a rational being must always be regarded at the same time as the legislative, because otherwise he could not be thought of as an end in himself.” [31]

Kant understands that such a society exists only as an ideal, but one that every rational being should strive for. [32] In human society, there will be those inclined to pursue their own happiness, even at the expense of others. According to Kant, the swirl of competing desires and inclinations require some sort of overarching principle to ensure a just society based on respect, reason, and justice. The only way to achieve this “kingdom of ends,” absent the conception of an ultimate authority such as God, is to obey the universal moral law.

So what did Kant have in mind for a practical implementation of such a kingdom of ends? The kingdom of ends was meant to represent an ideal for man’s interaction with each other. However, in Concerning the Common Saying: This May be True in Theory But Does Not Apply to Practice, Kant offers us some tantalizing details on what he expected would be the optimal relationship between man and state.

As the title of the article states, this was Kant’s attempt to answer the very charge that his philosophy was only good as an ideal and not in any way practical for real-world situations. In many ways, Kant was ahead of his time advocating many of the basic tenets of liberal democracy like individual freedom, equality under the law, and freedom of the press.

In his ideal commonwealth, wealth and status would not be determined by heredity, but by each individual’s freedom to pursue their own interests as long as those interests did not conflict with his categorical imperatives. Put in Kant’s own words:

"From this concept of the equality of men as subjects in a commonwealth the following formula is derived: Every member of a commonwealth must be able to reach every level of status in the commonwealth which can belong to a subject and which [he can achieve] by his talent, his industry or his good fortune. No subject may stand in his way as a result of hereditary privilege and thus keep him and his descendants down forever." [33]

Most Americans in the twenty-first century would be hard-pressed to argue against such a government. In fact, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Kant hoped that the age of monarchs was drawing to a close and that the future of Europe would consist of republics of free citizens.


Critique of Kant's Kingdom of Ends

Nevertheless, when reading everything here in the proper context, those laudable opinions just mentioned are contradicted by Kant’s rigid focus on duty and obedience, two traits praised by Soviet commissars and Nazi stormtroopers alike. Kant advocates blind obedience to the state, no matter how depraved that state may be. This, when juxtaposed with events of the twentieth century, shows the limits of Kant’s ideas when contrasted with the real world.

Kant asks the following questions: What should the citizenry do when the government makes a bad law that will cause unhappiness? Is it permissible to resist? The answer, he tells us, is that the citizen has a duty to obey, even when the political authority is oppressive. He goes even further by saying, “We are not interested here in the happiness of the subject supposedly resulting from the institutions or the administration of the commonwealth but are interested only [in the law which is to be secured] for everyone by this institution and administration.” [34]

This hearkens back to his discussion of happiness in the Groundwork where he argues the concept is too indefinite and subjective to use as a baseline for morality. Duty, again, is paramount and the citizen’s duty is to always obey political authority. Kant essentially hands a blank check to the ruler to do as he pleases. He tells us, “From this it follows that all resistance against the supreme legislative power, all instigation to rebellion, is the worst and most punishable crime in a commonwealth because this destroys the foundation of a commonwealth.

The prohibition (of rebellion) is absolute.” [35] Kant is arguing that society and its equilibrium can never be in balance if rebellion is a constant threat. This is even more of a risk when that society is composed of free, autonomous individuals. The price for stability, therefore, becomes complete obedience to the head of state.

This obedience at all costs can prove absurd when placed in the context of the twentieth century. For example, on 20 July 1944, Count Claus von Stauffenberg and three other conspirators were lined up along a wall at the Army headquarters in Berlin and executed by firing squad for their roles in a plot against Hitler. The crime was high treason. Such was the grisly end of the last and most serious attempt to overthrow Hitler’s regime.

These men were motivated to revolt in response to Germany’s rapidly deteriorating military situation, convinced that Hitler’s leadership was leading Germany to catastrophe. As Stauffenberg was about to be executed, he shouted: ‘Long live sanctified Germany!’ In Stauffenberg’s final words lay a deeper expression of duty, no longer to a failing Nazi regime, but to his ideal of Germany.

It was a mixture of patriotic duty (as he defined it) that drove the more idealistic of the conspirators like Stauffenberg to take the risks that they took. While their timing and motivation can be debated, it is clear that they acted in order to overthrow a corrupt and evil regime.

According to Kant, however, those conspirators acted illegally, even if a more despicable and terrifying regime is scarcely imaginable. Even here, Kant tells us, laws are laws and must be obeyed, no matter what the circumstances. Nalin Ranasinghe notes this chasm between Kant’s ideas and reality: “Kant…seems oblivious to the threat of authoritarianism and the value of heroic example in the struggle against a totalitarian world picture.”[36]

Kant nevertheless wrestles with the question of how these free individuals should deal with a criminal government. It is here where Kant displays a perplexing level of naiveté and shows just how much a creature of his milieu he was. Perhaps with the relatively benign Frederick II of Prussia in mind, Kant tells us, “The non-resisting subject must be able to assume that his ruler does not want to do him injustice, for every man has his inalienable rights which he cannot give up even should he want to and concerning which he is entitled to form his own judgments.” [37]

As we know today, assuming the best about your leaders can get you killed. If the leaders of a state are committing crimes like those of Hitler, Mao, and Stalin, then any assumption of good intent must be discarded in the face of harsh reality. If even in extreme historical cases like these, rebellion is not possible, then there exists a fundamental flaw in Kant’s philosophy.

Sven Arntzen attempts to argue that Kant does actually provide some scope for resistance. In his view, since respect by a government for individual dignity is a condition to being a subject, the compromise of this dignity by political authority (i.e. the person is being used as a means for the purpose of the state) in turn compromises the legitimacy of that political authority. In this context, resistance is permissible. [38]

However, Arntzen is attempting to reconcile the contradictory parts of Kant’s philosophy. On the one hand, Kant speaks of a duty of love and dignity; on the other hand, you have his political principles that prohibit resistance. [39] By focusing on Kant’s more humane principles, Arntzen ignores how unequivocally he denied the right to resist political authority. [40]

Actually, the two cannot be reconciled, not at least without ignoring or downplaying certain things that Kant wrote. This, again, displays the gap between ideal and reality. Individual dignity and respect are laudable goals, which to be fair Kant does advocate for, but by precluding resistance to evil political power he leaves those same goals vulnerable to totalitarian tendencies. Even the most well-thought-out ideas must have the flexibility to adjust to changing reality.

The implications of this inflexibility are damning, especially given the examples of abuse of power already presented in this essay and what those abuses mean in the undermining of morality. When totalitarian regimes are given free rein to control the minds and bodies of their subjects, it should come as no surprise when many of those subjects begin to sync their own personalities to fit that of the regime’s ideology. However, those who do not fit the regime’s ideology are put in situations where Kantian ethics provides few viable options.

Then, whether as the victim or the perpetrator, individuals in these regimes find themselves unable to adopt the rigid and unrealistic principles that Kant proposes we use to govern our ethics. In other words, reality overpowers ideals, and therefore invalidates those very ideals as a system that can provide effective answers to the whole range of life’s contingencies. Adolph Eichmann’s claim he had tried to live his life according to Kant’s principles presents a case study of what can happen to one’s moral bearing when duty and obedience become the primary driving motivators of behavior, forcing out the more humane elements.

At his trial, Eichmann explained he understood perfectly well that the moment he began participating in the Final Solution he had ceased to live by Kantian principles, but that he consoled himself with the belief that he was no longer in control of his own actions. What struck many about Eichmann was just how ordinary he was. This was not a monster by birth, but by circumstance. On that razor’s edge separating victims from perpetrators in totalitarian regimes, Eichmann could have gone either way given different circumstances. Such was the man who could indignantly describe Nabokov’s Lolita as ‘quite an unwholesome book’ while at the same time consigning hundreds of thousands of innocent people to their deaths. By emphasizing duty over emotions and obedience over justice, Kant’s ethical philosophy reveals itself as impractical when transposed from the realm of the ideal to the world of reality. The morally hazy nature of human experience leaves us grappling with how to make the best of whatever situation we find ourselves in. In the end, life is an art, not a science, and cannot be reduced to a series of principles as if it were a math equation. In spite of his invaluable legacy to philosophy, Kant, in the end, did not understand this.


Supplementary Material



[1] Immanuel Kant. "The Metaphysics of Morals in Ethical Philosophy." Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 1994. 223.

[2] Ibid., 220.

[3] Karen E Stohr. "Virtue Ethics and Kant's Cold-Hearted Benefactor." Journal of Value Inquiry 36.2-3 (202): 187-204. Print.

[4] Immanuel Kant. "The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals in Ethical Philosophy." Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 1994. 398.

[5] Karen E Stohr. "Virtue Ethics and Kant's Cold-Hearted Benefactor." Journal of Value Inquiry 36.2-3 (202): 190. Print.

[6] Michael Stocker. "The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories." Journal of Philosophy 73, no. 14 (1976): 453-66.

[7] Immanuel Kant. "The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals in Ethical Philosophy." Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 1994. 416.

[8] Ibid., 416.

[9] Ibid., 429.

[10] Ibid., 439.

[11] T.K Seung. "Practical Reason in Kant: a Guide for the Perplexed." London: Continuum, 2010 126.

[12] Immanuel Kant. "Introduction." In Ethical Philosophy, xxxviii.

[13] Immanuel Kant. "The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue." In Ethical Philosophy, 429.

[14] Immanuel Kant. "On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns." In Ethical Philosophy, 425.

[15] Ibid., 426.

[16] Ibid., 427.

[17] Christine Koorsgard. "The Right to Lie: Kant on Dealing with Evil." Philosophy and Public Affairs 15.4 (1986): 325-49. Print.

[18] Orlando Figes. "The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia." New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007. 248.

[19] Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem. London: Penguin, 2006. 91.

[20] Ibid., 11.

[21] Predrag Cicovacki. Kant's Moral Philosophy. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2002. 390.

[22] Immanuel Kant. "The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue in Ethical Philosophy." 450.

[23] Ibid., 450, 453.

[24] Immanuel Kant. "The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals in Ethical Philosophy." 399.

[25] Todd Calder. "Kant and Degrees of Wrongness." The Journal of Value Inquiry 39 (2005): 233.

[26] Immanuel Kant. "The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue," 438.

[27] Lucas Thorpe. "The Point of Studying Ethics According to Kant." The Journal of Value Inquiry 40 (2006): 473. ProQuest. Web.

[28] Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem, 105.

[29] Immanuel Kant. "The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue," 438.

[30] Immanuel Kant. "The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals," 433.

[31] Ibid., 434.

[32] Ibid., 433.

[33] Immanuel Kant. Basic Writings of Kant. New York: Modern Library. 422, 8:292.

[34] Ibid., 426, 8:298.

[35] Ibid., 8:299.

[36] Nalin Ranasinghe. "Ethics for the Little Man: Kant, Eichmann, and the Banality of Evil." Journal of Value Inquiry 36.2-3 (2002): 313.

[37] Immanuel Kant. Basic Writings of Kant. New York: Modern Library. 430, 8:304.

[38] Sven Arntzen. "Kant on Duty to Oneself and Resistance to Political Authority." Journal of the History of Philosophy 34.3 (1996): 424.

[39] Immanuel Kant. "The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue,"462.

[40] Immanuel Kant. Basic Writings of Kant. New York: Modern Library. 8:299.

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